The Tokyo District Court dismissed a lawsuit Tuesday filed by the relatives of two executed Japanese soldiers against two newspapers and a journalist over publications that said the two competed to be the first to behead 100 Chinese in 1937 during the advance on Nanjing.

Three relatives of the two Imperial army second lieutenants filed the suit seeking 36 million yen against the Mainichi Shimbun, the Asahi Shimbun and Katsuichi Honda, a journalist who formerly worked for the Asahi, saying the reports are false and defamed the soldiers and their families.

Presiding Judge Akio Doi said it is difficult to prove the news articles were based on a fabricated incident because one of the soldiers made remarks indicating his role in the contest.

Doi also said the reports cannot be called “clearly false,” as historians have yet to agree on whether the contest actually occurred.

The court also noted that the 20-year statute of limitations for claiming damages related to the 1937 articles that appeared in the Tokyo Nichinichi Shimbun, the predecessor of the Mainichi, has expired.

The soldiers were executed after the war by the Chinese government after being tried by the Nanjing military court.

The plaintiffs argued that the Tokyo Nichinichi Shimbun falsely reported in its articles in November and December 1937 that the two second lieutenants carried out “hyakunin giri kyoso” (100 head contest) to see who could behead 100 Chinese soldiers first, while on their way to Nanjing.

The Asahi published a series of articles in 1971 written by Honda based on accounts of Chinese survivors of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, mentioning the killing contest by the two officers, and published a book later with similar descriptions.

The plaintiffs said the Mainichi did not run a correction of its wartime stories, which they said were fabricated to whip up sentiment. They also argued that the Asahi continues to publish the book.

The relatives filed the suit in April 2003, saying they could not tolerate the continued defamation of the two men.

During the trial, the defendants argued there was no defamation committed, as the lieutenants had agreed to publish their wartime stories and were apparently involved in the indiscriminate killing of civilians and prisoners of war, as well as soldiers.

After the ruling, the plaintiffs claimed it was physically impossible for such a contest, and it was regrettable the court did not clearly state it was a fabrication.

Their lawyers took issue with the court’s stand that it could not say the contest did not take place. This puts the burden on the plaintiffs to prove the incident was fabricated, whereas it should be up to the writers and publishers to prove it did take place, they argued.

Honda called the ruling “natural” and alleged the plaintiffs were trying to downplay the Nanjing Massacre and Japan’s invasion of China.

He said he was in a sense grateful because the suit effectively helped underscore the contest as an established historical fact, but he expressed anger that the court proceedings “wasted” his time.

The plaintiffs said they intend to appeal.

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